Part five of a five-part series
I kept watch while John took a leak among Lily Dale’s sacred trees.
“Hey, at least I’m not peeing on The Stump,” said John. “And I’m just doing what’s natural. Isn’t that what (the Spiritualists) want?”
Bladder satisfied, John shuffled back to the path and we crunched our way deeper into the woods. We traveled half a mile into Leolyn Forest, a stretch of woods far older than the community on its border. We traveled to the focus of spiritual energy in Lily Dale—the Inspiration Stump.
This Stump started hosting spiritual services in 1898, and The Stump’s allure is still strong today. Spiritualist pilgrims travel from all over the world to bask in The Stump’s stumpiness. Many claim a heightened awareness and potency of energy overcomes them when close to The Stump.
Maybe that same energy made John’s whiz an emergency.
Shoes soaked and determination pumping, we pressed on until we breached The Stump’s service area. Sixty-seven benches dotted the baseball-diamond sized clearing, capable of holding almost 300 visitors at one time. Newly planted evergreens struggled to grow along the borders, stunted by the centuries-old oaks soaking any sun available. And at the center of it all, the mighty Stump of Inspiration.
The Stump stands about three feet tall with a four-foot diameter, so, as far as stumps go, the arborean corpse deserved some respect for having lived so long. A small black-iron fence, composed of thin metal spikes likely to impale anyone who tripped, surrounded three sides of The Stump. The fourth side held a small staircase meant to look like it’s a part of The Stump. It takes faith to climb a crumbling stair surrounded by metal spikes. And hundreds of teachers do so every year—taking their perch on The Stump’s slated top before preaching.
Around the base of The Stump a pattern of stone squares branched outwards, each square etched with the name of a significant spiritualist, community leader, or substantial financial contributor—though many of the names couldn’t be read. Years of wear from walking pilgrims and poor upkeep reduced community heads like Marion Skidmore to “ion Skid.” It’s a cool sounding name for a nerd rap group, sure, but not a fitting memorial.
“Why do these people put their names on everything?” said John. “Shouldn’t they know who is where since they’re psychics…or mediums…or whatever?”
Recognized by the stones or not, thousands of Spiritualists return each summer to pay heed to The Stump’s power. They fill these benches and walkways to capacity, listening intently to that hour’s reader or lecturer. A mat of neon and pastel backs straightened in spiritual shock, or bent in the deepest meditation they’ve ever known. With the area’s, and some claim the country’s, font of energy at their disposal, why not whip out a couple of crystals to bestow fortune on your fellow Spiritualists? Or how about doing some major psychic surgery to fix someone’s soul?
“People get off to a dead hunk of wood. Huh,” said John. “What else do they get away with?”
A surprising number of residents refused to share tales of “what they get away with” during their joyous on-season. Reverend Mary Ockuly, former Lily Dale board member, avoided answering her door after first giving her consent to visit through a phone call. She answered my three polite knocks by her turning down the volume on her television, closing the curtains, and whispering urgently to her guest.
It must have been my aura.
However, one generous, selectively-anonymous Spiritualist offered to share pictures of the on-season’s activities. The 32-year Lily Dale veteran owned shelves of old photo albums, all carefully timed and dated for memory’s sake.
“You’re missing out,” said Anon. “These pictures come close. Just close though. Come back in the summer and I’ll let you stay here. You’ll get the real feel of Lily Dale.”
I looked over the photographs with a curious eye and a storyteller’s mind. The pictures toured a fraction of Lily Dale’s on-season splendor. The scenes unraveled as I browsed, lending to the community’s mystique with each frame.
* * * * *
First down the woodland trail and to the right, photos of the Bargain Shoppe show a pilgrim browsing the varied wares. The twin shoppe keepers light their faces with twin smiles among the colorful displays—happy for the season’s burst of customers and a chance to meet new people.
“We’re open every day from 11 to 5, all year round,” said shoppe keep one.
“We have something for you…for anyone,” said shoppe keep two.
“And if we don’t, we’ll order it,” said shoppe keep one.
Across the main counter a statue of the archangel Gabriel smiles while slaying a demon next to a garnet Buddha—pleased to be in his perfect state of existence and nonexistence. Down that same aisle a puppy dog doll with a pentacle sewn onto his back puts on a dejected face among the cherub statues. Whether he’s sad because the hundreds of passing customers ignore him, or that the infantile cherubs smirk in disapproval, or that his animal-themed tarot card friends are on the other side of the shoppe, is left to question.
Native American trinkets jingle the tales of Kokopelli, mocking the Egyptian talismans which try to maintain a stoic reverence among the mood rings and crystal balls.
The Grecian gods have it the worst. Aphrodite’s infinite beauty is cheapened by an over-burdened umbrella stand, beverage cooler, and a faded Ares statue—losing most of his legendary wrath while laying prone in the Beanie Baby bucket.
All of this is ignored by the passing pilgrims, interested in purchasing a “My Other Car is a Broomstick” and a “Beam Me Up, Merlin” bumper sticker instead. A mature woman of dignified air and attire thumbs through the comical car accessories—adjusting her shock of faux-ginger hair with each giggle.
“Merlin? Not my first pick but he’ll do,” said the woman. “I really don’t care who it is. They better just come down and take me—take me away!”
The collective sigh of the scattered spiritual icons is lost in the crystalline hum of new-age folk congesting the shoppe’s atmosphere.
Further down that same road, past the overcrowded healing temple, today’s firehouse volunteers gather in prayer and planning. It’s important that they discern the best selection for tomorrow’s service. Assigning an emergency medical healer on a day he or she has a lecture to give could be a disaster.
The crew of four volunteers huddle around in concentration, awaiting their captain’s orders. Though their captain looked like some Romanian villager’s haggard wife, she leads with all the gravity and authority required of a commander.
“Mary, Susan? You’ll be on call for emergency healing,” said the fire hall director. “What says the Spirit, Lane?”
That day’s volunteer diviner didn’t predict a need for the high-level healers to be prepared. In turn they assign the B-team of firefighters, certified medics, and spiritual healers.
“It’s good to stay ready,” said the fire hall director. “The spirits can’t always be correct in their guidance.”
And the fire squad is ready. To heal any affliction and quench any fire—real or ethereal.
On the opposite side of the community the spiritually un-attuned enjoy a peaceful day of fishing with the family. Upper lake holds an abundance of ports, but none so bountiful and accommodating as Lily Dale’s docking. Groups gladly pay the $5 pass—whether they choose to ignore, poke fun at, or accept the lakeside mediators.
Nearby, Friendship and Lincoln Parks are full of color. Brightly patterned picnic blankets stretch across the plush grasses. Spiritualists and skeptics all sit and feast, watching their children streak across the expanse with flag-football ribbons or flowing gowns. Practicing mediums meander between the gatherings, offering quick readings for a few coins.
Small stalls stand among the trees of Friendship Park. Seasoned mediums and vendors lay out their collection of spiritual charms. Everything from a necklace to promote sexual potency to a $1.25 candy bar constitutes the peddler’s wares. Another stall a few trees over advertises tarot readings and auragraphs. The tarot diviner is shuffling her deck impatiently while the auragrapher sets up his easel and sketchbook—ready to draw and color a person’s aura like a caricature artist looking for that one facial feature to exploit.
A variety of vendors stand to serve any level of belief, or non-belief.
Overlooking the practitioners at work, the children at play, and the families at picnic, are the year-round locals—sipping exotic teas on their coffee-house and hotel-porch perches. Garbles of pleased and curious conversations enliven the air’s fraternal vibe. They chat of new visitors, old friends, upcoming workshops, and just how wonderful being in touch with the spirit realm really is.
Pictures of the Marion Skidmore Library show rows of spiritual acolytes studying modern philosophy together.
At the Lily Dale Craft Guild, scores of older women weave neon-colored baskets, knit mammoth quilts, and carve small wooden idols.
The assembly hall is at capacity, full of pot-luck diners donating to the medical needs of a community member.
The warmth of living well could be seen in each picture.
It just happens to be that the community members talk to the dead.
* * * * *
“You’re missing out,” said our anonymous photo-tour guide.
He/she is right.
On the trip home from Lily Dale I made peace with Mary Ockuly and Anon’s hesitance. In all the church services, private readings, and personal tours of Lily Dale, I’ve been treated to nothing but an ideal life. Who could blame Mary and Anon for protecting their hard-earned world from potential harm?
“Still, (Mary) could have answered the door and said no,” said John. “Maybe she saw the future and knew she was going to make herself look stupid.”
Or maybe she saw that, at the time, my curiosity couldn’t be satisfied with a simple chat.
It took multiple visits, hours of research, and the shattering of many comfort zones to grasp what’s so special about Lily Dale.
And how are they special? The members of the Lily Dale Assembly have obtained what lives are lost over every day:
Though their two churches differ in philosophy, the attendees go to each services knowing they’re still part of the community—that they’re safe and steady in their shared beliefs.
Even with the varied methods of mediumship, healing, and divination, members have power in feeling they can control their world.
Their happiness, their right in living, is genuine. Just because a group is misunderstood, smaller than a popular alternative, and steeped in an uncertain tradition, it doesn’t mean they’re any less viable than the next.
“Hey, mind if we stop at the casino on the way back,” said John. “We’ll just hit the buffet and use my player’s card for a discount. No gambling this time. I promise.”
And some alternatives to talking to the spirit realm are far more expensive.
Jared VanDyke is a freelance writer and graduate of St. Bonaventure University’s Journalism and Mass Communication program. He is attending Goddard College for an MFA in Creative Writing, in June of 2010, to strengthen his preferred writing style of New Journalism.